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Friday, July 30, 1999 Published at 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK


Space age advances public health

Tests under development need a drop of blood for instant diagnosis

Technology developed in the quest to discover life in space and the attempt to combat biological warfare will revolutionise public health, according to a senior specialist.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Peter Boriello, director of the UK's Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), said the advances will cut costs and ensure patients get the best possible treatments.

Central to these advances is the increasing availability of near-patient tests - on the spot kits that can diagnose disease in a GP's surgery without a sample having to be sent to a laboratory.

He said the main driving force behind the development of such kits were the need for life-detecting tests in space exploration and the military's need to be able to quickly identify biological weapons.

An exact science

"Looking for germs and deciding what they are and the best way to treat them can be a relatively long process, but what modern technology has done is made it increasingly quick and accurate," Prof Boriello told BBC News Online.

"In some cases we no longer have to grow the germ in order to know what it is."

He said the use of such diagnostic tests could help doctors identify the exact bacteria causing the infection and allow them to prescribe only antibiotics known to be effective.

They would also identify whether or not antibiotics were needed at all - for example, they could tell a GP if the infection was a virus, against which antibiotics are useless.

The tests would also help combat antibiotic resistance, the process by which bacteria develop resistance to certain types of drug.

"A GP won't be giving an antibiotic blind - if he knows a particular germ is causing that infection, for example a sore throat, then he has a better guess at which antibiotic to give," he said.

Dangers in store

However, there was a danger that tests could be used inappropriately or that quality control would slip.

There was also a danger the use of on-the-spot tests would threaten the comprehensiveness of the PHLS's library of germs.

"The PHLS is the germ police - we collect germs, we fingerprint them and we keep a record of what's about, what types of them are about and where they are, and we do that by people sending them to us," he said.

"Near-patient tests mean you don't have to grow the germs or send them to anybody, so there is a risk that our national picture may be reduced or compromised."

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